4 tips for more dramatic environmental portraits

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

This month, we’ll focus on photographing the immensity of the world around us. Think about emphasizing the height, breadth, or depth of the environment and the elements therein. In many cases, this means shooting landscapes, cityscapes, or other wide angle approaches to nature or architecture.

small boat and fisherman on large lake by Megan Dill

Megan Dill

Let’s take big world shooting a step further. Once you identify the scope of the environment you’ll be shooting, find a way to enhance the enormity of that environment by incorporating a person in the shot. Doing so accomplishes a few things: 1) it provides an identifiable sense of scale within the frame; and 2) it adds an emotionally familiar, psychologically relevant element.

Because we are emphasizing the magnitude of environment, the human figure will almost certainly appear quite diminutive within the frame. With conventional wisdom often advising photographers to “get closer,” doing just the opposite is part of what makes the tiny figure relative to the big world have such impact. At the same time, however, because of the relative smallness of the human subject, it can be more difficult to make the subject stand out. Here are a few ways to aid in ensuring the figure doesn’t become lost:

1. Utilize Color

A person in highly saturated clothing against a neutral or low-saturation background will powerfully draw the eye. For even more impact, think about the dominant color of the background, and – if possible – select or place a figure that is wearing a contrasting color. For example, shoot a subject in red against the greenery of a massive forest; shoot a subject in orange against a sprawling blue ocean and sky; or shoot a subject in purple against the sweeping, warm golden sands of a desert.

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Mickie DeVries

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Erin Wagnild

2. Utilize Negative Space

Particularly when you are shooting a vast landscape or other very open environment, making a single human subject the only interruption to the simplicity of the scene can be very effective. Try placing the person at the left edge of the frame to suggest an impending journey across the frame and open environment, or try placing the person at the right edge to allow the eye to carry across the frame and arrive at the human subject as a stopping point.

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Justine Knight

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Kat Gotschall

3. Utilize Tonal Contrast

A bright subject amidst a world enveloped in shadows or darkness — or closed in by imposing buildings, trees, etc — can be like a tiny beacon to which the eye is drawn. Conversely, a dark subject against a brighter background – such as a silhouette against a bright sky – can be equally effective.

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Catherine Rodriguez

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Holly Thompson

4. Or deliberately hide your subject!

On the flipside, perhaps you’d prefer to use the human figure to create unexpected impact. Think about whether you can draw the viewer into a barren, abandoned, or isolated environment, then allow the visual discovery of a subtly hidden subject to be a surprise. This positively jarring viewing experience can have significant emotional force and memorability.

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Lisa Snead

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

Meredith Novario

small subject, big world creative photography tutorial

mamamoo

Let’s see what you’ve got! Remember, for the purposes of this exercise, image will emphasize the magnitude of the environment and/or elements therein by including a human figure and framing so that the figure appears very small within the frame relative to the surrounding environment.

What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!

editors choice

And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!

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Sarah WilkersonSarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | Click Photo School Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CPS’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.

Read all photography tutorials by Sarah Wilkerson.

free creative photography exercises by Sarah Wilkerson for Clickin Moms

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